A man has entered a school and killed 14 women and then took his own life after this heinous unthinkable act. You sit in your living room in shock,. You try to understand how this could happen in your city, your province, your country, etc. Eventually the killer’s identity is shared—he is your son.

 

By Acharya Samaneti

{trigger warning: gun violence}

Imagine watching the news one evening, a mass-shooting has happened.

A man has entered a school and killed 14 women and then took his own life after this heinous unthinkable act. You sit in your living room in shock,. You try to understand how this could happen in your city, your province, your country, etc. Eventually the killer’s identity is shared—he is your son.

You sink into your sofa, feel the world around you go quiet, and you watch everything fade away as you realize that your son, your own flesh and bone, is the monster that has just caused all this pain and suffering. This trauma is the product of actions that have been done by the person that you love and care for the most in this world. You struggle to understand what is happening.

You become sick and completely overwhelmed with grief, shame, anger, sadness, and complete disbelief that this is happening. You feel guilty feeling these emotions knowing that there are 14 families coming to terms with the loss of their daughters, partners, friends, mothers  and so forth.

You watch as the media calls your son a monster, you see society become angry and hateful towards a person that they don’t know like you do; they don’t know the child that they were. They don’t know how you did your best to raise the best person that you could, with the abilities that you had.

You feel that the ground under you has been taken away. You never saw this coming. How could you not see it? You realize that you have become collateral damage, that you are left alone to heal and make sense with everything that has happened.

At the beginning of the piece, I think that any Canadian doubted that I was talking about the Polytechnic Massacre that happened in Montreal over 30 years ago—an act of hatred that was rooted in misogyny, which shook a country.

That night, Monique Lépine saw the carnage that her son caused, an act that was unconscionable and she never saw coming; the country forever changed that night, and so did her life.

One begins the process of healing from the events; making peace with the tragedy, healing from the trauma of having your son be the author of this national tragedy—all of this on your own. When these events occurred in 1989, she realized that there was no assistance offered to her to help deal with what she was living in the aftermath of this; she was collateral damage from her son’s actions.

She felt that the government and society regarded her as a criminal: without any support she never missed one day of work, she worked as a nurse for 40 years as she processed this trauma without any help whatsoever. This difficult path of healing was done by herself in the time she could find between shifts and other responsibilities.

I am co-vice president for an organization here in Montreal that helps these victims—the families of the authors of criminal acts, the “collateral damage.”

At no cost, we offer various types of support from empathetic listening to other types of assistance; workshops of therapeutic art sessions, campaigns which  provide Christmas presents to the children of the incarcerated and we are present with the families from arrest to their release. This organization is endeavoring  to be innovative and of service to the best of our abilities for the families who often feel that they have nowhere to turn. That society has only empathy for the direct or indirect victims of these crimes—forgetting that these families are also victims of these actions.

Restorative Justice has become the process “par excellence” in most chaplaincy and community circles to facilitate healing and building a more just and empathetic society. This process lets the authors of these actions truly understand the impact of their behaviour on the victims, including the long term trauma that can carry over into their lives a long time after the fact;. This can also help victims better understand the motivations and conditions which may result in a person acting in such a way.

During these meetings we also have a witness from the community, which helps bring a neutral perspective into the circle to show how this incident may be perceived by someone outside these experiences and events. Also, we hope that these witnesses may then go back into their circles and share what they have learned with their people.

This whole process helps us humanize something that most people only want to see in binary terms, as it is easier to simply categorize people in absolutes instead of seeing the complexities that exist within all of us and then make it harder to simply brush people off as garbage or lost causes.

What I want to create now is something like this for the families that are usually left to their own devices when their loved ones commit criminal acts which result in  incarceration. I am working on a circle where the family can speak with an author of a similar crime and share the suffering that these actions bring on their families and loved ones; the impact is certainly felt and important for the victims and their loved ones.

They must also not forget what their own loved ones go through in these moments—the isolation, grief, shame, and shunning from their social circles. The family problems which can come from one parent being at home to ensure that the children are okay and that everything else is taken care of… I want to create a space where they can freely express themselves and hopefully mitigate what are usually already difficult and fragile relationships, but also let someone from society inform their peers about what these families go through.

Restorative Justice claims it is secular, but with the all the years that I have worked in this program, I have to say that I still believe that it is basically Judeo-Christian in values and beliefs.

More and more I am starting to use an increasingly Buddhist context. Here is how a Buddhist framework can help shape Restorative Justice towards a new direction while also being of help for the families that could benefits from these exercises:

The Restorative Justice movement is driven by the growing awareness of a failure of the current justice system. Many people think that something happen to “straighten out” the harm that crimes cause to victims and to the social fabric. The Buddhist approach to punishment, like any other approach, cannot be truly separated from this conception of psychology and the vision of human potentialities: for the greater majority of people; crime, punishment and amendment are always linked to religious perspectives on sin, judgment and forgiveness.

We are not confronted by this point of view with the Buddhist tradition because the teachings of the Buddha have the capacity to adapt to  cultural contexts. There are the beliefs which view delinquents as victims, have the same Buddha nature, and should not be confused with our understanding  of  the self—an always changing assemblage of good and bad mental tendencies; whereby we operate under the domination of greed, hatred and delusion.

But it is always possible to transform; and according to which education and amendment are the only reason for the punishment.

Buddhists often point to the Angulimala sutta, the best-known Buddhist text on crime and punishment.

The sutta is based on a serial killer’s amendment, his engagement on the Buddhist journey and how he still has to live with the karma he has accumulated through  his many violent acts. We can witness the inner change that happens with Angulimala, and how he becomes a totally different person thanks to his meeting with the Buddha and the teachings which were given to him.

However, this story is not 100% satisfactory from the point of view of restorative justice. The sutta does not say anything about families of Angulimala’s victims, or the more general social consequences of his crimes, except to mention the crowd at the door of King Pasenadi’s palace. It wouldn’t be fair to consider this attitude as an indication of an indifference of Buddhism towards society, but it illustrates well, the attitude of early Buddhism towards spiritual salvation.

Liberation is an individual affair, and the way to achieve this involves leaving society, not transformation through a process that includes the larger community—exclusive rather than inclusive.

According to the teachings of the Buddha, the problem is not punishment but amendment, and the best the cure for crime is to help people realize the full consequences of their actions (this is why I like to discuss and explore with people judged when studying the sutta on Angulimala, but this is not necessarily the traditional study of this teaching). Buddhism’s insistence on the impermanence of all things means that nothing is irremediable in our harmful tendencies.

There is always the law of karma: “I am the result of my own deed … whatever deed I do, good or bad, I will inherit it.“

As chaplains we search to find healing for all involved by actions that cause great harm. As I reflected during the anniversary of this tragedy my heart went out Monique and all that she had to go through on her own; pushed away and made out to be a criminal because of the actions of her child.

I do not want to minimise what happened on that night in Montreal or any other acts of violence, but I do want us to start including these people, who are collateral damage,  on the road to communal healing…

Deep bows,

Samaneti

 

Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall

 

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